The Toronto Van Attack Trial: Why The Stories we Tell Matter

This week, the trial begins for Alek Minassian who infamously murdered several people and injured several more using by intentionally driving a rented van on a sidewalk in Toronto in April 2018. Since the facts of the crime and the identity of the perpetrator is beyond question, the defense counsel has decided to go the route of trying to get Minassian off by looking at state of mind. And in doing so he is taking an already misunderstood population and making some dangerous connections through some very unreliable and damaging myths and stories.

The defence lawyers are arguing that Minassian was not criminally responsible because he’s on the autism spectrum. In so doing the defence lawyer is building on the mythos of autistic people not having good moral judgment and suffering from a deficit of empathy. This is not only wrong, but in fact the opposite is true–people on the autism spectrum often have a strong sense of right and wrong (in fact, sometimes it’s too strong and “black-and-white”) and while there can be difficulty in expressing emotion according to the norms of the cultures we inhabit, people on the autism spectrum actually have a stronger subjective experience of emotion than the “neurotypical” population. In addition, incidences of violence are actually far lower in the “neurodiverse” population than the neurotypical population.

At the time of the Toronto Van Attack, as it was colloquially known, Minassian was identified as a member of the “incel” community. “Incels”, short for “involuntarily celibate”, is an identity that has risen out of the Internet age, and is one of its more disagreeable groups. Romantic loneliness is something that many experience, and often there is a degree of frustration attached to that experience; what the forums, chat boards, and other virtual spaces that gave birth to the rise of incels did was push those individuals already in pain to extremism; by increasing their despair and directing and focusing their anger, these communities condoned and even encouraged violence against those who caused pain–and, surprise, surprise, the most common targets of “incel” attacks are women–despite the supposed claim that they are not like “other guys”, in the end incels show that they are ready to perpetuate one of the oldest crimes in human history–violence against, and oppression of, women.

It is true that people on the autism spectrum, as well as the larger neurodiverse community often wrestle with romance, and thus romantic loneliness. Many people on the autism spectrum are “late bloomers”–that is, they achieve certain developmental threshold and societal accomplishments later in life than the average population. But the idea of someone on the autism spectrum being radicalized into an incel stretches credibility; and even if it was done, the idea of not being criminally responsible is absolutely unwarranted.

In reality, Minassian had set up the van rental weeks in advance. He let his father drop him off at a coffee shop, and then headed off to commit his crime without betraying a single clue. This is the sign of a premeditated, carefully planned and executed plan for maximum chaos and damage–it is NOT the sign of a spur of the moment, blind emotional outburst. Incidentally, it also shows a degree of motivation, organization, and productivity that many people on the autism spectrum can only dream of. Whatever caused Minassian to do this was not his autism; and the idea that he wasn’t criminally responsible is completely ridiculous.

I, personally, am on the autism spectrum and I am in my late twenties. I have very little romantic experience and have never even kissed anyone. I strongly desire a romantic relationship and the accompanying emotional and physical intimacy. I have loved others–I have just not found a mutually romantic loving relationship as of yet. There are times I despair of ever finding it; and there are times I feel hope that it could yet happen. My rational brain tells me that I’m statistically likely to have a relationship, get married and have children in the next 5-10 years; I have friends and family who assure me it is only a matter of time, and some even presciently predicted that the closer I got to “settling down” age, the more romantic opportunities I would have—and I’m realistic enough to know that there’s merit in that argument.

It is a struggle to see others seemingly so happy and easy in their romantic relationships; it can be frustrating to wait and feel like romance is farther away than ever. Yet even with all of that pain and loneliness and despair, I have more often felt envy, not jealousy. I do not begrudge anyone the love they have found; I merely want to find love also. And I’d say my experience is a far more typical experience of neurodiverse folk than Minassian.

So to Minassian’s counsel I say this: stop using erroneous and misleading information that will worsen the public’s misconceptions of an already misunderstood, marginalized, oppressed and vulnerable population, and come up with some other defence strategy if you can–because Minassian did not do this because of autism and saying otherwise makes an already hard fight even harder.

Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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